7 Famous Artists Who Had Unexpected Day Jobs

Even the greatest visionaries have to eat. These famous artists worked unusual jobs to fund themselves while they were following their artistic dreams.

Nov 10, 2023By Katherine Schreiber, BA Studio Art

famous artists unexpected day jobs


Art may feed the soul, but it generally doesn’t feed the artist. While some artists find financial success early in their creative careers, most people must support themselves through other means. Many artists had day jobs until their big break came. In some cases, their big break happened after their death so they had different day jobs during their entire lives. Here are 7 famous artists who held unexpected day jobs while they pursued their dreams.


1. Famous Artist Paul Gauguin: Stockbroker

paul gauguin self portrait yellow christ 1890 painting
Self Portrait with the Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin, 1890, via Musee d’Orsay, Paris


Paul Gauguin, the painter known for his Tahitian landscapes and his dramatic feud with Vincent van Gogh, worked as a banker before he became a professional artist. From ages 17 to 23, Gauguin sailed around the world with the French merchant marine; after returning to France in 1871, he secured a job as a broker at a Parisian stock exchange. This occupation proved lucrative, allowing the painter to comfortably support his wife and growing family. However, art was calling his name.


Outside of work, Gauguin began teaching himself to paint. He also used his excess income to collect works by artists like Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne. Eventually, inspired by the works in his new collection, he decided to undertake formal training with impressionist master Camille Pissarro. Soon, Gauguin began exhibiting works at the annual impressionist exhibitions.


In 1882, the stock market crashed and Gauguin found himself unemployed, so he informed his wife Mette that he was going to pursue art full-time. She was, according to various reports, less than thrilled. Mette’s concerns proved prescient. In 1885, unable to find work and seeking creative inspiration, the artist abandoned his family and embarked on a series of trips to increasingly remote locales. Eventually, he hopped on a ship to French Polynesia, where he painted masterpieces, had affairs with underaged girls, and eventually died from syphilis.

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2. Henry Darger: Custodian and Dishwasher 

henry darger spangled blengins painting
Spangled Blengins. Boy King Islands. One is a young Tuskerhorian the other a human headed Dortherean by Henry Darger, n.d., via MoMA, New York


When Henry Darger died in 1973, his landlord was asked to clean out Darger’s cluttered apartment. Inside, the landlord found, among hordes of glass bottles and other detritus, a treasure trove of art including a 15,000-page novel, a 5,000-page autobiography, and hundreds of drawings and paintings. The reclusive Darger, who had been barely known to his neighbors during his lifetime, let alone the public, had now become a famous artist.


During his adult life, Darger supported himself by working as a janitor and dishwasher. He had had a troubled childhood: at the age of 8, after his widowed father became unable to care for him, he was placed in an orphanage, and then in a mental asylum in central Illinois. At the age of 17, Darger escaped, walked 160 miles back to Chicago, and found work as a hospital custodian.


His life changed little over the next 60 years. He worked at various Catholic hospitals, lived in modest apartments in Chicago, attended mass several times a day, and made almost no friends. In his spare time, however, Darger was building a strange and complex imaginary world. His paintings and writings, which tell stories about enslaved children struggling against abusive adult villains, are now part of museums across the globe. Many see Daeger as one of the greatest outsider artists of the 20th century.


3. Joseph Cornell: Salesman

joseph cornell hotel beau sejour 1954 sculpture
Untitled (Hotel Beau-Séjour) by Joseph Cornell, 1954, via MoMA, New York


The assemblage sculptor Joseph Cornell, known for his found object shadow-boxes, worked various jobs to support himself, his mother, and his three siblings. In 1921, he found work as a salesman at a textile company in Manhattan. The job entailed going to menswear retailers throughout the city with a suitcase full of fabric samples.


Cornell was not a natural salesman. He was famously shy and lived with his mother and brother for most of his life. Nonetheless, textile sales had their perks. For one thing, the job allowed Cornell to spend his days wandering through a strange, bustling, urban landscape. This experience would inspire much of his later art. It also introduced the artist to Manhattan’s cultural scene. After work, Cornell saw shows at the Metropolitan Opera, visited avant-garde galleries, and explored American art at the Whitney Studio. Indeed, biographer Deborah Solomon argues that Cornell’s Manhattan wanderings provided a kind of artistic education for the sculptor, who had dropped out of high school and never attended college.


After Cornell lost his job during the Great Depression, he worked briefly as a door-to-door appliance salesman. Eventually, he found his way back to the textile industry. From 1934 to 1940 he worked as a textile designer for the Traphagen Commercial Textile Studio. After leaving this position, he worked as a freelance designer for various magazines.


4. Agnes Martin: Teacher

famous artist agnes martin tremolo 1962 painting
Tremolo by Agnes Martin, 1964, via MoMA, New York


In 1980, the painter Agnes Martin sent her friend, gallery owner Arnold Glimcher, a list of the jobs she had held in her life. The list included many different gigs such as managing cherry pickers, baking, and working at a hamburger stand. Before she became a full-time artist, however, Martin’s primary profession was teaching. She received her teaching certificate in 1937 and spent three years teaching in rural high schools across Washington state.


In 1941, unable to find a permanent teaching role in the Depression economy, Martin enrolled at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she would eventually receive both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. While at Teachers College, Martin was able to take a range of studio art classes, including drawing, painting, and puppet making. Life in New York City also introduced her to the great abstract and surrealist artists of the day. According to art historian Christina Bryan Rosenberger, Martin likely saw exhibitions of works made by Adolph Gottlieb, Arshile Gorky, and Joan Miró during her time at Columbia.


After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Martin wandered across the country and continued to teach at schools in Washington, Delaware, and New Mexico. Eventually, she settled in Albuquerque, where she enrolled in an MFA program at the University of New Mexico. After graduating, she taught at the university and at a local high school. In 1951, she returned to Teachers College to pursue a master’s degree in Art and Art Education. Martin continued to teach sporadically in her later years. Biographers see her years at Teachers College as an important formative period in her artistic development.


5. Vivian Maier: Nanny

vivian maier untitled photo 1953
Untitled by Vivian Maier, 1953, via Smithsonian Magazine


Like her fellow Chicagoan Henry Darger, street photographer Vivian Maier became famous only after her death. In 2007, towards the end of her life, Maier stopped paying rent on the storage unit where she kept some of her photographs and film, and the unit’s contents were auctioned off. The collector who purchased the contents had been hoping to find photographs of a Chicago neighborhood for a book he was writing. Instead, he accidentally purchased the work of a great artist.


Maier, who was born in New York but grew up mostly in France, moved back to the United States in 1951 at the age of 25. After a brief stint at a sweatshop in Manhattan, Maier moved to Chicago, where she would live for the rest of her life, supporting herself by working as a nanny in the city’s wealthy suburbs.


Maier did not, according to the families she worked for, particularly like children. One former employer recalled Maier force-feeding her as a kid. However, other children and families remembered her more fondly. Nannying allowed Maier to support herself while she pursued her real vocation of capturing intimate and strange photographs of city life. She spent her days off roaming the streets with her camera and often dragged the kids she was looking after with her while she took photographs.


While Maier’s employers knew that she was a photographer (she almost never went out without her camera), none knew the extent of her talent. Maier left behind an estimated hundred and fifty thousand photographs. Today many critics consider her to be a street photographer on par with Diane Arbus and Robert Frank.


6. Richard Serra: Furniture Mover

famous artist richard serra lift 1967 sculpture
To Lift by Richard Serra, 1967, via MoMA, New York


When Richard Serra, the sculptor known for his giant, site-specific steel sculptures, was struggling to make ends meet as a young artist in the 1960s, he decided to start a moving company. The company, Low-Rate Movers, was based in Lower Manhattan. Serra employed many of his fellow struggling artists, including avant-garde composers Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, painter Chuck Close, actor Spalding Gray, and experimental filmmaker Michael Snow.

“It was a good job,” Serra recalled in a 2006 interview with the Brooklyn Rail, “because none of us would work more than two or three days a week, so we had the remaining days to do our own work.”

Owning a moving company also proved useful in other ways. When Serra was working on his sculpture To Lift in the mid-1960s, he used Low Rate Movers equipment to lift the material for the project into his loft. The company also fostered community among its employees, who shared creative ideas and sometimes collaborated outside of working hours. In 1969, for example, Serra and Snow participated in Reich’s Pendulum Music, a sound performance piece at the Whitney Museum of American Art.


7. Famous Artist Ai Weiwei: Gambler

famous artist ai weiwei sunflower seeds sculpture
Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei, 2010, via Tate Modern, London


Artist and activist Ai Weiwei has had an eclectic artistic career. He’s filled the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with porcelain sunflower seeds, helped design the stadium for the 2008 Olympics, and wrote many blogs. His non-artistic career has been equally varied. After dropping out of Parsons School in the early 1980s, Ai supported himself through a variety of odd jobs, including gardening, trading antiques, and drawing street portraits in Times Square.


For much of the 1980s, however, one of Ai’s primary sources of income came from gambling. The artist was a masterful blackjack player who, at one point, would visit Atlantic City several times a week. He became widely known in American blackjack circles in the 1980s and early 1990s. When he was detained by the Chinese government in 2011, the American blackjack community was outraged. Some players even suggested holding blackjack tournaments to raise money to lobby for his release.


Though he no longer relies on blackjack for income, Ai continues to gamble recreationally. In a 2017 interview, he explained what the game had taught him about art and life: when playing blackjack, he said, “You have to be very concentrated, extremely concentrated. We know if you are extremely concentrated, it really generates your potential of winning in every aspect of your life.”

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By Katherine SchreiberBA Studio ArtKatherine Schreiber is a writer and artist based in Boston, Massachusetts. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth College, where she studied studio art and literature.